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By Ken Lashway


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1923 MPDA Harold Lloyd Photo Print1936 R-95 Harold Lloyd Linen Premium PhotoHarold Lloyd entered the world in extreme poverty, born to unremarkable parents, and throughout the years of his youth, had no real roots. When he died seventy-seven years later, he was a very wealthy man, long entrenched in a luxurious Beverly Hills mansion with 26 bathrooms, and was famous throughout the world as one of the great film comedians of Hollywood’s early years.

Ironically, Lloyd’s first love was not comedy, but dramatic acting for the stage, so his early acting experiences were exclusively in drama. By the time Harold reached the age of twenty, he and his father had moved to Los Angeles, where the film industry was still in its birth throes. There he competed for roles with the desperation that only poverty can inspire, and was successful in landing small dramatic parts that got his foot in the show business door. The turning point for Harold came from his association with the soon-to-be-great Hal Roach, who was a fellow actor struggling to win some of the same roles Lloyd was after. The two became friends, and when Roach came into an inheritance (a whopping $3,000), he formed his own film company and asked Lloyd to join forces with him. It was Hal Roach who persuaded Harold Lloyd to look to comedy to make his mark, seeing in him the fire of the poor, humble man determined to make good against the odds - a formula which could well be adapted to comic circumstance.

By 1917, Roach’s production company had released more than seventy short films featuring Harold Lloyd as a comic character they called ‘Lonesome Luke’, who was akin to Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Little Tramp’ - but Lloyd wanted more than just to imitate the great Chaplin. So he developed an on-screen character uniquely his own, which he always referred to as the ‘Glasses Character’, and it was this invention which skyrocketed Harold Lloyd to fame and fortune. His ‘Glasses Character’ always wore a straw hat, horn-rimmed glasses, and a ready smile. He wore no special costume besides these articles, and strove to present a vulnerable but determined boy-next-door underdog kind of persona. Much like the real-life Lloyd, he was prepared to overcome all obstacles that stood between him and success. This was the kind of attitude that audiences loved to see in post-World War I America, and whether or not it was intentional, Lloyd tapped into the prevailing mood of the American public with this new screen character.

1917 Kromo Gravure Harold Lloyd Trading CardEarly Harold Lloyd pinback buttonThe ’Glasses Character’ was so deeply embraced, so loved by the movie-going world that Lloyd retained the character for the duration of his movie career, both in silent films and in talkies. Some of these were among the first feature-length films ever made, and helped establish the appeal of longer films. With 1921‘s forty-six minute feature, ‘A Sailor Made Man’, Lloyd kicked off a string of hugely successful silent films, which included ‘Grandma’s Boy’, ‘Safety Last’, ‘Doctor Jack’, ‘The Freshman’, and ‘Speedy’. These films helped Lloyd achieve the zenith of his popularity, and during the decade of the 1920’s, his films did as well or better than anyone else’s in Hollywood.

He became renowned for his daredevil stunts in these films, most of which he performed entirely on his own, although sometimes with the aid of clever and innovative photographic techniques. The one scene he is invariably remembered for came from 1923’s ’Safety Last’, in which he is shown dangling from a building, precariously hanging onto a giant clock. Ironically, Lloyd was never seriously injured by any of the high-speed chases or other dangerous film stunts - his worst career accident stemmed from the misjudgment of a prop bomb on the set which had real explosive material inside. When he lit it, the ’prop’ exploded and took off his thumb and forefinger, and temporarily blinded him. His sight returned eventually, but he was obliged to wear a prosthetic device covered by a glove for the remainder of his film career, unbeknownst to his fans.

1924 Harold Lloyd BAT Tobacco CardAfter 1928’s ’Speedy’, Harold Lloyd began making talkie films, and while they did not achieve quite the same success as his silent film masterpieces, movies like ’Welcome Danger’, ’Feet First’, ’Movie Crazy’, and ’Milky Way’ received critical acclaim not only for being hilarious, but for being well-constructed, well-presented stories that were beautifully photographed. Lloyd believed that these films were among the funniest he ever made, and was very disappointed that they were not received more enthusiastically by the public. By 1938, Lloyd felt resigned to the fact that he would never again achieve the soaring popularity he had enjoyed during the Roaring Twenties, and became less interested in making comedies. At this stage of his career, without formally announcing any kind of retirement, he quietly turned his attention to other interests, such as dabbling in color photography. Some of the first Technicolor shorts ever made were filmed at ‘Greenacres’, his 44-room mansion in Beverly Hills.

While he did appear sporadically on screen, e.g. ‘The Sin of Harold Diddlebock’ (1947), Lloyd was mostly lost from the public eye until he was presented with an honorary Oscar award in 1953 for having achieved the status of ‘master comedian‘. After another period of relative obscurity, the best of his films were compiled by Harold himself in two documentaries made in 1962 and 1963, and this sparked renewed interest in his early genius, both for those who remembered and for a new generation of fans.

A contemporary of both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd was often referred to by critics and movie-lovers as the ‘Third Genius’. These three early greats were, and still are, often mentioned in the same discussions and debates, and that fact alone is tribute to Lloyd’s place in the pantheon of great film comedians.
Ken Lashway is a freelance writer from New York. This is one of a handful of profiles Ken has written about the legends of comedy for The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.